A bodhisattva is a great practitioner who is walking on the path toward Buddhahood by benefiting all sentient beings as well as themselves. ~ Venerable Master Hsing Yun
One of the wonderful teachings and practices of Mahayana Buddhism is that of the “Bodhisattva Path”. In the Bodhisattva Path anyone can become a [unenlightened] Bodhisattva right away, eventually become an enlightened Bodhisattva, and finally an actual Buddha! All of this is so we can grow and express our strong desire (“Bodhicitta”) to liberate all sentient beings (yes, even that person you don’t like at work) from the cycle of birth and death (“Samsara”) in our “Saha World”. Don’t worry about these terms, we will discuss them more in a minute.
For many, this sounds like a completely overwhelming (and sometimes an unrealistic) goal and path to walk on. The truth is that it only seems that way. Nobody says it will be easy, but as we all know the best things rarely come easily.
I like to think of the Bodhisattva Path as driving a truck full of disaster relief supplies from Los Angeles in California to New York City in New York…all while driving at night. The trip alone would take a few days and thousands of miles, but driving at night means you need to rely on different things such as a map, the headlights of your car, and signs. For me, this is a great analogy for all of us as we embark on this great journey to help all sentient beings. We have a map (the Dharma, Sutras, teachers, etc.), a car or truck (yourself), relief supplies (bodhicitta), friends in the car with us (the Sangha/monastics, Dharma friends, etc.), the road (our Saha World), and the cities we are going to (sentient beings).
By the end of this article, my wish is that you will not only have a good understanding of the Bodhisattva path, but also will want to “drive” with me and others on this road trip! For a summary of this article, click here for a printable fact sheet (PDF).
Since I am using the analogy of “driving” on a trip for the Bodhisattva Path, you can have a little “reading” music with the “Holiday Road” song from the comedy film “National Lampoon’s Vacation” starring Chevy Chase.
The Roadmaps of the Two Schools
While the “Bodhisattva Path” is purely practiced in Mahayana Buddhism, the question about how Theravada fits in always comes up. It is important to state up front that Theravada is not “wrong” in not teaching and practicing the Bodhisattva Path. What is wonderful about Buddhism is that there are many “Dharma Gates” (there are said to be 84,000 different ones!) that allow someone to begin their journey in Buddhism. I eventually found myself walking through the Dharma Gate that led me to the Bodhisattva Path, and perhaps others will as well.
The goal for all schools of Buddhism is to transcend the world we live in (the cycle of birth and death, known as “Samsara”, in the “Saha World” we live in). However Theravada and Mahayana have different views, and ways, of achieving this:
- In Theravada the goal is individual enlightenment and liberation by achieving the stage of an “Arhat” .
- An Arhat is a fully enlightened being that escapes the endless cycle of birth and death by achieving Nirvana. A practitioner can achieve one of the four progressive stages of “enlightenment”, with Nirvana only achieved in the last stage (as a fully enlightened Arhat).
- Nirvana is the highest goal in Theravada, allowing the practitioner to transcend the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). However, Mahayanists believe it is impossible for an Arhat to simply exist in Nirvana because individual enlightenment is not truly possible, and they will eventually have to follow the Bodhisattva path in a future birth.
- While compassion towards all sentient beings is practiced in Theravada, the “Bodhisattva path” ideal is not recognized, taught, or practiced, and is purely Mahayana in nature. This is because Theravadins recognize The Buddha (Shakyamuni Buddha) as the “Samma-sam-buddha” who provided the “liberating law” (Dharma). Because of this, nobody else is needed to free other sentient beings (the Dharma exists), and we should all “get out now” from Samsara/the Saha World, through the Arhat path. A new “Samma-sam-buddha” comes when the Dharma is no longer found in the world (the next Buddha, known as Maitreya, is recognized by both Theravada and Mahayana).
- It is recognized that anyone can be a Bodhisattva in Theravada Buddhism, however this is usually “exceptional” beings such as certain teachers, kings, etc. The “Bodhisattva Path”, however, is not part of Theravadin teachings or practice.
- In Mahayana the goal is the liberation of all sentient beings at the same time through the process of becoming a “Bodhisattva” (“Bodhi” means “awakened” or “enlightened”, and “sattva” means “sentient being”), and then a Buddha, and forgoing entering “Final” Nirvana (Parinirvana) as long as Samsara remains.
- Mahayanists believe that all beings have the innate ability to become a Buddha, which is known as “Buddha Nature”. However, we fail to recognize and achieve this due to our desires, delusions, and attachments (the “Three Poisons”).
- When one follows the Bodhisattva path, they are an “unenlightened Bodhisattva” (much like Shakyamuni Buddha in prior lives), and can eventually becomes an enlightened Bodhisattva where they will voluntarily choose to stay in Samsara by standing on the edge of full awakening, but choosing to stay in the “Saha World” to help all living beings. This compassion and desire for the enlightenment of others is known as “Bodhicitta” (“Awakened Mind”).
- Compared to Theravada, Nirvana is not the end goal because there is attainment beyond it (Buddhahood). A Bodhisattva eventually becomes a Buddha and exists in “nonabiding nirvana” where they are completely free of Samsara, but stays in this less restrictive Nirvana in order to continue their goal of actively helping all sentient beings. Note: This type of Buddha is different than a “Full” Buddha (Samma-sam-buddha), such as Shakyamuni Buddha. A Samma-sam-buddha provides the Dharma to a world without it, and achieved awakening without a teacher or teachings (Dharma) to help them.
In Mahayana Buddhism, the “Bodhisattva path” is the ideal for all practitioners to follow. By following the Bodhisattva path, they not only help others along the way, but also help themselves develop towards attaining enlightenment.
But a Bodhisattva is not just a Mahayana concept according to the famous Theravadin Venerable Dr. Walpola Rahula (Bodhisattva Ideal in Buddhism):
There is a wide-spread belief, particularly in the West, that the ideal of the Theravada, which they conveniently identify with Hinayana¹, is to become an Arahant while that of the Mahayana is to become a Bodhisattva and finally to attain the state of a Buddha. It must be categorically stated that this is incorrect. This idea was spread by some early Orientalists at a time when Buddhist studies were beginning in the West, and the others who followed them accepted it without taking the trouble to go into the problem by examining the texts and living traditions in Buddhist countries. But the fact is that both the Theravada and the Mahayana unanimously accept the Bodhisattva ideal as the highest.
What Ven. Dr. Walpola Rahula said is correct, and this belief that Bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana only truly needs to be taken into context. Theravada does support people becoming Bodhisattva’s, however it still differs from Mahayana. In Mahayana the belief is that for true liberation of all sentient beings, everyone eventually needs to be on this path (thus, Bodhisattva’s one and all). In contrast, Theravada supports that anyone can be a Bodhisattva, however it is usually for “exceptional” people who can become one (perhaps some Dharma teachers, etc.). Theravada does not recognize that everyone needs to be a Bodhisattva (and later a Buddha) in order for liberation (Nirvana) and that the Bodhisattva Path in Mahayana is “unrealistic” to them. Whereas Mahayana does say the Bodhisattva Path is inherently necessary because individual enlightenment is not possible as taught in Theravada.
According to Barbara O’Brien, expands on why individual enlightenment is not possible due to the concept of “emptiness”:
Mahayana, on the other hand, considers all physical forms to be void of intrinsic self (a teaching called shunyata, which means “emptiness”) and individual autonomy to be a delusion. Therefore, according to Mahayana, individual enlightenment is not possible. The ideal in Mahayana is to enable all beings to be enlightened together, not only out of a sense of compassion, but because we cannot separate ourselves from each other.
This is not to say that Theravada doesn’t look favorably on this ideal of being enlightened together either. Ven. Ajah Chah who was a famous Theravada Buddhist monk of the Thai Forrest Tradition, had an interesting disclosure with Ven. Ajahn Sumedho. According to Ven. Ajahn Amaro, Ven. Ajahn Sumedho said to Ven. Ajahn Chah:
I’m totally committed to the practice. I’m determined to fully realize nibbana in this lifetime; I’m deeply weary of the human condition and determined not to be born again.
Instead of giving what is the “assumed” response in Theravada, where Ven. Ajahn Chah would have said supported this [individualistic enlightenment] approach, he instead said:
What about us, Sumedho? Don’t you care about those who’ll be left behind?
To give a Zen/Ch’an² response to that above response by Ven. Ajahn Chah we could say “Aha!”. This is yet another example where Buddhism, regardless of school, is still the same Buddhism at its core. While it is true that we (unfortunately) do not see this promoted as much as we do in Mahayana, it is nevertheless (refreshingly) there in Theravada.
If we could sum up the two schools by using a “drowning swimmer” analogy: Theravada believes you need to know how to swim and rescue the person first, thus one who leads the spiritual life (a monastic) is more skillful in saving others. Mahayana believes that, yes, knowing how to swim would be great, but sometimes you just got to do something! Letting someone drown is not a good thing either. Therefore, a group effort, such as a “human chain” going out into the ocean to rescue someone is what they promote (swimming is a nice to have, but not necessary when everyone works for the common goal). And sometimes we have to take things in perspective such as the water is only knee-high 😉 The important thing to remember is that neither school is wrong, or right.
Both school’s “reasoning” on achieving enlightenment is correct, but the circumstances must also be taken in. There is no escaping our interconnectedness and the compassion to save all living beings, and at their core, both schools do this but just in different ways (paths).
Get in the Car and Go!
When you are ready to start your road trip, you need to get into a vehicle and go. That’s easier said than done! For anyone who dreads long driving (especially in our L.A. to N.Y.C. scenario), you need a firm commitment to keep going, and not turn around. The same holds true with the Bodhisattva Path.
Mahayanists take a formal vow (called the “Bodhisattva Vows”) when they are ready to follow the Bodhisattva path. These vows help to develop and express their “Bodhicitta” (“Bodhi” means “Enlightened” and “Citta” means “Mind”) of wanting to be enlightened for the sake of all sentient beings and not just themselves.
The vows are:
- Sentient beings are limitless, I vow to liberate them.
- Afflictions are endless, I vow to eradicate them.
- Teachings are infinite, I vow to learn them.
- Buddhahood is supreme, I vow to attain it.
While there are many versions of these vows, the fundamental structure remains the same. Here is another more lengthy version which can offer more context:
- Since the suffering of sentient beings is immense, a Bodhisattva vows to help liberate limitless sentient beings from their suffering.
- Since suffering is accumulated through unwholesome karma, a Bodhisattva vows to help sentient beings sever the endless flow of afflictions.
- In order to guide sentient beings toward the path of cultivation, a Bodhisattva vows to learn the infinite Dharma.
- In order to help sentient beings realize the fruit of cultivation, a Bodhisattva vows to attain supreme Buddhahood.
Be Sure To Visit Those Roadside Attractions
Usually when we want to get from “point A” to “point B”, we drive past everything except a gas station or hotel if we truly need to stop. Our goal is to get there “as quickly as possible”. However, we are often missing the culture, history, and experiences that can help us grow as a person. While that may not be always 100% important on a road trip, it is important on the Bodhisattva Path.
The end goal is to become a Buddha, and you can’t do that while isolating yourself from the Saha World. There are many steps towards becoming a Buddha on the Bodhisattva Path, and these are just a few (for more in-depth information, refer to Ven. Master Hsing Yun’s book “Infinite Compassion, Endless Wisdom“):
- Steps of the Bodhisattva Path: There are “Five Paths” (or “Five Stages”) practitioners go through, and they progress through ten stages of realization known as “The Ten Bhumis” (Bhumi is Sanskrit for “land”, “level”, or “ground”). A Bodhisattva must pass through these ten “lands” until they can become a Buddha. In essence, the Ten Bhumis are extensions of the Eightfold Path by helping to turn concern for self into concern for others. Of note, it takes countless “kalpas” of cultivation to become a Buddha (even for Shakyamuni Buddha!). A “kalpa” is an extremely long length of time, and there are four types of Kalpa’s (depending on context, the smallest kalpa is 16 million years long, next is 16 billion years long, then 320 billion years long, and finally 1.28 trillion years long). Some Kalpa’s can have up to 1,000 Buddha’s who come one-by-one in them, and some have no Buddha’s at all. That drive from L.A. to N.Y.C. doesn’t seem like a long drive now!
- The Five Paths are:
- Preparation (or Application)
- No More Learning (or Consummation). Much like in Theravada, the final path (#5) is where a person has completed purified themselves.
- The Ten Bhumis are:
- Joyfulness (the “Very Joyous”)
- Benefiting Others (the “Stainless”)
- No Contradictions (the “Light-Maker”)
- Resilience (the “Radiant Intellect”)
- Non-Ignorance and Non-Confusion (the “Difficult to Master”)
- Appearing in Any Form at Will (the “Manifest”)
- Non-Attachment (the “Gone Afar”)
- Exalting What is Most Difficult (the “Immovable”)
- Perfecting Wholesome Dharmas (the “Good Intelligence”)
- Truly Practicing the Path (the “Cloud of Doctrine”)
- The Five Paths are:
- 51 Levels of Enlightenment and the Six Perfections: Compared to the four levels of awakening (enlightenment) in Theravada, there are 51 (or more, depending on school) aspects (or levels of cultivation) of awakening in Mahayana. Much like being in school, the beginner goes through these levels for kalpa(s) just like Shakyamuni did. The Six Perfections, however, are the most important teachings for those on the Bodhisattva Path and are what those on the Bodhisattva path follow. The Six Perfections are:
- The perfection of giving
- The perfection of morality
- The perfection of patience
- The perfection of diligence
- The perfection of meditative concentration
- The perfection of prajna-wisdom (which is great wisdom beyond the “duality of emptiness and existence” which Bodhisattva’s skillfully use in order to help sentient beings).
Get On the Bodhisattva Convoy
One thing truckers learn is to be part of a “convoy” while driving long distances. Not only does driving with others bring a sense of community (if only temporary), but there is also mutual benefit and protection. They often talk to each other on their C.B. radios for conversation, road conditions, and more. There is no reason why we shouldn’t get some guidance and help from Bodhisattva’s!
Of the many Bodhisattva’s in existence now, “Maitreya” tops the list because he will be the next Buddha after our Saha World loses the Dharma of Shakyamuni Buddha.
“Avalokitesvara” is next because Buddhists believe she embodies the compassion of all the Buddha’s. Don’t be concerned that you will be growing a thousand arms and hands as a Bodhisattva in the future! Often this is a skillful way to show that the Bodhisattva’s deep compassion for all living beings needs many “hands” and “things” in order to help everyone in any way that can help taht person. Think of it like a “jack of all trades” that can skillfully do any job. Instead, a Bodhisattva uses their skill in helping beings towards liberation.
Finally, Guanyin (Guan Yin) is believed to be the embodiment of Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva by Chinese Buddhists, and is generally depicted as a Female. Of note, the depictions of Bodhisattva’s as “male” or “female” are not important because a Bodhisattva can take either form to help sentient beings.
In light of these great Bodhisattva’s, we should also learn about the “Modern” Bodhisattva’s, which are those in our Saha World practicing right now! Humanistic Buddhism (part of Mahayana) reinforces the Bodhisattva path for its followers to help other sentient beings in there here and now (our world).
As Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:
The term bodhisattva is commonly used today to denote people with the vow and intent to benefit the general public. As the sutras say, “To become accomplished in Buddhist practice, one should first be of service to the public, like horses and steers.” This shows the determination and compassion that is necessary for a bodhisattva. On the path to attaining Buddhahood, it is initially necessary to nurture these bodhisattva qualities by cherishing affinites with people.
Are you a Modern Bodhisattva? If you have taken the Bodhisattva Vows and are actively practicing on the Bodhisattva Path, then the answer is yes! Ven. Master Hsing Yun explained:
Other Bodhisattvas are merely ordinary people who have made the extraordinary vow to dedicate themselves to the well-being of others. The Sutra of the Eight Realizations of Great Beings is directed mainly at such ordinary Bodhisattvas. It is intended to teach them how to behave in the word, and how to help others. It teaches that the life of a Bodhisattva must be characterized by compassion, caring, wisdom, and kindness. In this sutra, as well as in many others, the Buddha explains that the Bodhisattva path is an active path that leads into life, not a passive way that seeks only to retreat from life.
But Didn’t the Buddha Cancel His Bodhisattva Path Roadtrip?
A good question that sometimes comes up is “Does the Buddha entering final Nirvana (“Parinirvana”) contradict the Bodhisattva Path ideal?”
My personal opinion is “no”, and here’s why:
- The Buddha entered “parinirvana” (“final nirvana” when all his ties to karma were completely unbound) at his death, meaning he would never experience rebirth (Samsara) in our Saha World again.
- On the surface this does seems to conflict with the Bodhisattva ideal where Bodhisattva’s willingly enter Samsara again and again until all sentient beings can be liberated out of great compassion. Does this mean the Buddha did not have great compassion? Absolutely not. In-fact, The Buddha was a Bodhisattva many times in prior lives.
- Each “era” has its own “Buddha” (the Buddha of our time is Shakyamuni Buddha, the former Prince Siddhartha, commonly called “The Buddha”) where their teachings are available to those who wish to follow it providing the path to liberation (Shakyamuni Buddha is a Samma-sam-buddha).
- After his awakening and despite reservations on teaching the Dharma to others because not all would be able to understand it, The Buddha, through great compassion for all sentient beings, decided to teach the Dharma anyways. Therefore, the current Dharma we have from Shakyamuni Buddha is the “Dharma of our Era” from the “Buddha of our Era”.
- Essentially, there is no need for Shakyamuni Buddha to constantly return in our “Saha World” because his teachings (the Dharma or “liberating teaching”) already exist and offer us the teachings and path we need to take. He “exists” always in our era through the Dharma, and this is something only a Samma-sam-buddha like Shakyamuni can do. The Dharma is the ultimate gift of liberation for all sentient beings by Shakyamuni Buddha. We continue on through his example by vowing to follow the Bodhisattva Path and help all sentient beings.
When the Car Seat Gets Uncomfortable From Driving A Long Time
Does all of this sound like “too much”? Is wanting to help everyone, even that guy who cut you off in traffic, seem beyond comprehension? Or does it sound like having to wait all these extremely long periods of time (kalpas) are beyond imagination? You’re not alone!
In our current life in this Saha World, we can only move forward with a few things to remember.
- First, we DO have the Dharma from the Buddha of our era, Shakyamuni. That alone is the greatest gift and most exciting thing we could ask for. There are many people who have not even heard the Dharma, yet you have access to it and perhaps many different teachers of it either in person, or through books and the internet. This is a rare gift!
- Second, we progress along these paths as far as we can see. For those who are now awakened yet (and I count myself as one of the many unenlightened), we can still progress without seeing the entire road. If you remember my analogy from the beginning of this article where we are driving in the darkness from Los Angeles to New York City. You can do that only seeing just a little bit ahead of your car with your headlights, yet you can still make it the entire way. The same holds true with the Bodhisattva Path. You have a map (just like you would have a map for taking you to New York City) of the Dharma and the Bodhisattva Path, so you need only continue your practice. The trip from L.A. to N.Y.C. won’t be done in one hour, nor will your attainment of an enlightened Bodhisattva or Buddha. Knowing also the concept of “nonself” and “impermanence“, the need to get everything done in “this life” truly gets put into the right perspective and you can relax a bit!
You’re a bodhisattva when you never waiver from your powerful aspiration to be of benefit to everyone, not just in meditation but throughout daily life.
- Thank you to Venerable Sanathavihari LosAngeles for his review and feedback of this article for the Theravada portions.
- Recommended Books: Infinite Compassion, Endless Wisdom – The Practice of the Bodhisattva Path by Ven. Master Hsing Yun
- Further Reading: Awakening the Bodhisattva on Lions Roar, Becoming a Bodhisattva by Ven. Master Hsing Yun, Between Arhat and Bodhisattva on Lions Roar, Bodhisattva Vows by Barbara O’Brien, What is a Bodhisattva by Barbara O’Brien, What is a Bodhisattva? by Kosho Uchiyama on Tricycle
- Reference: Bodhisattva on Wikipedia, Arhat on Wikipedia, Buddhahood on Wikipedia, Samadhi on Wikipedia, Bhumis of Buddhism by Barbara O’Brien, Bodhichitta by Baraba O’Brien, Mahayana Buddhism by Barbara O’Brien,
- ¹ Hinayana It is commonly referenced as the original “school” of Buddhism. However according to Ven. Analayo Bikkhu, that is more of a general term and that is not the right term to use.
- ² Ch’an is the Chinese, and original, version of what is known as “Zen” in the West. Zen is the Japanese version of Ch’an, Thiền in Vietnam, and Seon in Korea.
- Although commonly translated and referred to as “suffering“, the original Pali word is “Dukkha” which actually has many meanings such as dissatisfaction, suffering, unpleasantness, stress, impermanence, etc.
- Nirvana is called Nibbāna in Pali. Karma is called Kamma in Pali